It's not about lowering standards or making concessions on skills or abilities when we increase the number and diversity of candidates
Talent is a manifestation of our humanity. By humanity, I mean the totality of human beings, their nature and their behaviors. Humanity is expressed in different ways. I let the philosophers develop the subject according to their orientations and their schools. Humanity is neither divine nor animal, even if it shares physiological characteristics with the animal world.
In our day-to-day, in business and corporate life, humanity conjures up ethnicity, religion, age, nationality, and gender. None of these attributes affect the presence of talent. Talent is the ability to achieve exceptional results. Talent is the ability of an individual to excel in a particular activity, "the desire to do something". Talent accelerates learning, but it does not replace dedication, practice, and discipline to succeed. It is not magic.
Different talents exist in all aspects of life. One can observe the talent in the artist, the chef, the pilot of formula 1, the mathematician and in business.
In 1997, Steve Hankin, who worked for McKinsey, coined the phrase "The war for talent”. This expression is repeated in 2001 with the publication of the book with the same title by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth Axelrod.
The authors define talent as: "The combination of sharp strategic thinking, leadership ability, emotional maturity, communication skills, ability to attract and inspire other talented people, entrepreneurial instincts, functional skills and the ability to produce results.”
Since the publication of the book, the use of the word "talent" as a synonym for employee has become very fashionable.
I find it is a generalisation of the term talent, akin to productivity rather than the ability of an individual to excel in a particular activity. In general, someone with a talent is more productive if they find an interest and motivation to be productive.
Of course, companies want to welcome the most competent people, but their capabilities must be related to the needs of the company. For example, if I am an excellent painter it will not necessarily make me an excellent software engineer.
And how do businesses recognise and seek talent? The combination of complementary talents in a company usually heightens the probability of success. But, we tend to employ people who are similar to us, in addition to the prejudices of recruiters. Which means that bias and stereotypes exist even if they are sometimes unconscious.
Very rarely talent can immediately be attested and validated. The processes for selecting the most suitable candidates for a position are sometimes questionable and not impeccable. The job description may be poor, and employers might not have accurately identified what sort of experience and skills would be more suitable for the job. Thus, the possibility of transferring skills is rarely taken into account. For example, the ability to solve complex problems can be applied in different fields, industries or even situations.
If we agree that talent has no gender, we must move towards inclusion, and establish equality of employment, promotion opportunity, gender and salary parity
It's not surprising that companies are starting to implement new practices around talent management. Johnson & Johnson has adopted artificial intelligence (AI) to select the most suitable CVs.
In 2014, research from the universities of Toronto and Minnesota reached the conclusion that algorithms are more accurate in predicting job performance.
Human beings can obtain information from candidates but they are not experts in the evaluation and weighting the results. The information is used inconsistently, recruiters and hiring managers may be misled by insignificant details or arbitrary remarks made by the candidates - thus destroying the effort to establish the value the candidates might bring.
The researchers advise to leave the selection to computers rather than humans, at least for the first pass of the selection process. However, algorithms are created by humans and therefore can perpetuate prejudices!
So what is the solution?
First, we must increase the number of candidates and the diversity of profiles: age, ethnicity, nationality, and gender! It's not about lowering standards or making concessions on skills or abilities.
There are sectors and trades that are traditionally male or female. For example, I have worked all my life in technology where the vision of roles tends to be narrow. It is often thought that all professionals in this field are only system developers or engineers. In reality, there are a variety of roles on offer, without of course negating that there very accomplished women in both development and infrastructure.
The university is traditionally seen as a female environment but in mathematics departments, for example, it is a different story.
That is why at the University of Melbourne (Australia), the School of Statistics of the Faculty of Sciences decided to accept only women candidates for three mathematics positions. Yes, it's positive discrimination! This is not the first time the school has done that. Already, last year, the school director saw this as a way to "give a new impetus to equality through new models in the school".
We also have to become more aware of our stereotypes. The Implicit Association Test measures implicit attitudes, that is, cognitive processes that a person is not aware of, for example, stereotypes.
Studies using Implicit Association Test (IAT) results have shown that most people tend to associate men with science and women with the arts, men with careers and women at home, and see men as leaders and women as subordinates.
For those who still find the stereotypes to be justified, they might follow the concept adopted by symphony orchestras. Orchestras improved inclusion by listening to candidates without looking at them during the audition. That is, candidates demonstrate their talent without their gender being known. Similarly, one could also read the CVs without seeing the names, or blind preselect a candidate by having to solve a problem.
In technology or on boards of directors, women are not well represented, few women are hired, and it is more difficult for them, once in the company, to get promotions. It may be the same with other stereotypes like nationality and age.
Borders hardly exist anymore with the mobility of professionals in a global labour market. Therefore, talent has no nationality or ethnicity.
Read more: The ‘L’ word
If we agree that talent has no gender, we must move towards inclusion, and establish equality of employment, promotion opportunity, gender and salary parity.
Claudia Vidal is an independent director for Skills4Work Inc and and advisory board member of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa; advisory board member (industry representative) for ITP's (IT Professionals NZ) Accreditation Board; and a member of the advisory board of the Strategic CIO Programme Business School at the University of Auckland. She is a senior technology leader with specific strengths in business strategies enabled by digital, and programme delivery. She is an editorial advisory board member of CIO New Zealand.